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When Is It OK to Hit Back?

Photograph by Getty Images

At my son’s preschool last year, another child slammed the door on him. When he told her that he didn’t like that, she scratched him across the face. So, he scratched her back.

The teacher was proud of my then-4-year-old for using his words, but she wanted me to reinforce the idea that we shouldn’t hit others, even if we were hit first.

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On the ride home from school, I told my son that I was proud of him for telling his classmate that he was upset that she’d closed the door on him, but that I didn’t want him hurting other children, even if they hit him first. In that situation, I explained, he should tell his teacher that he’d been hit.

Later, after the kids went to sleep, I told my husband what had happened.

“He got hit twice before he hit back,” he said. “How many times should he be hit before he’s allowed to hit back?”

And I had to admit, it was as good of a question as any. At some point, aren’t you allowed to fight back? Am I teaching him to sit docile while someone attacks him over and over? And more importantly, don’t I want my child to be able to defend himself when he’s older?

I don’t believe in violence. I don’t want my children to hit each other, I don’t want them to hit other children in school. My husband and I agreed a long time ago that we would not spank our children; we don’t believe in corporal punishment of any kind. But still, I don’t want my kids to be bullied. And I do want them to be able to defend themselves if their safety is in danger.

So, how do I teach them this? Is there a rule — if you get hit once, use your words, but if you get hit a second time, you can hit back? And how do I reconcile this with what they’re learning in school: You may never hit another child, under any circumstance, even if you are hit first. Even if you are hit more than once.

I worry for the future, when the kids are bigger, when the hits are stronger, and it’s not quite as easy to forget.

The day after the incident, my 4-year-old bounced into class just as happy as any other day. The scratch was barely visible, and he went and played with his friend as if nothing had happened just a day earlier.

But then, she did it again. Two days later, during afternoon circle time, the other child jumped up and, without provocation, scratched my son across his face. This time, she drew blood. The marks were bigger than the last time — you could see where her fingers had dragged themselves across my son’s face — and it looked raw, painful. Days later, it began to scab up and the mark remained for almost five months.

The teachers quickly removed the child from class and had her sent home. There was no question about whether or not to hit back, no time for my son to even respond.

The following morning, I met with the director of the school and we brainstormed ways to keep my son safe in class, how to teach him to respond in these situations. But we didn’t have to think about it for very long. Hours later, the other mother decided to pull her daughter out of our preschool and enroll her in another school.

So, I can stop worrying about it.

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But I worry for the future, when the kids are bigger, when the hits are stronger, and it’s not quite as easy to forget. Or heal. I don’t know what I’ll tell my children as they get older, as they get bigger. Is it ever OK to tell your child they can hit another child back? And if so, what are the rules?

I’m not sure I know the answer.

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